It’s interesting how Indian children of today are aware of the fact that Halloween is pumpkin pie time while thanksgiving and Christmas are all about roasts ,stuffing, mashed potatoes etc .How many of them actually pay heed to foods that are served up during a traditional pongal lunch ?
Believe it or not,these too are a celebration of not only the season’s bounty but also foods that signify a plentiful harvest after having been nurtured to grow during the colder months.
Among the first to make an appearance are the variety of broad beans. It’s the best time of year to pull out all those mochai recipes and experiment away. The yellow pumpkin is also a must have for a pongal feast.
Despite some people turning up their noses at a parangikai poriyal, when made well,it’s a delicious melt in the mouth dish. After quickly marinating for 15 minutes in oil tempered with curry leaves,mustard seeds and dried red chillies,it is cooked on a low flame in a deep kadai with salt and jaggery added as seasoning(no onions or garlic). The constant stirring and sprinkling with water results in flavours that are infused with the heat from the chillies and the inherent sweetness of the ripe pumpkin accentuated by the natural sugar.The coating of oil gives it a burnished gold as it cooks to a squishy softness that also makes the skin soft and tasty. The elders like to mix it with hot rice and a spoonful of homemade ghee or eat it as a side for curd rice. This one as you may have guessed is a personal favourite.
What is just as interesting is that the other ingredients in this dish are also used for a reason. With the green chillies reaching the end of season,the ripe red ones are picked and left to sun dry in the mid-morning rays. As a result,it is these that are used to flavour the dish. The jaggery again is a celebration of the sugarcane harvest.
The taste of the avarakkai if you notice, will be so much sweeter than when eaten during other times of year. That again is because all these plants thrive best during the later part of the year .They certainly do not thrive as well in the hotter months.The mochakottai as it is known in these parts has a unique taste profile that is quite addictive.In it’s fresh state it cooks fast and is delicious in gravies and simple stir frys. The deep fried bits of mochai are a much awaited snack.
Rice which is one of our staple grains are celebrated in many ways during this festival,the most important being the sakkarai pongal .In addition it is also used to make a creamy payasam which further signifies a prosperous harvest when combined with full cream cow’s milk , dried fruits and ghee.
The lentils are enjoyed for Pongal in the form of paruppu vadais. Every household will have it’s own way of how best to enjoy these crunchy deep fried vadais. At our family,it’s tradition to find the sweetest,ripest banana and mash it into a crumbly vadai with the finger tips in a way that only a mother can.There are some who get larger helpings than others but who can argue with practices that are cemented over time! It truly is a comforting pongal memory.
A Pongal meal therefore is something that is without a doubt,a blessed spread of food that is an expression of gratitude for the elements of nature;the sun , water, earth ,responsible for sustaining life on the planet. To be able to give our children an education such as this is just as necessary as literary academia imbibed in the comfort of a classroom.It is also this that will greatly serve to preserve their roots and understand a sense of self alongwith the need to preserve it however much modern influences of the western world slip easily into the intertwined facets of daily living!
Over the years we have made a conscious effort to cook with un-refined rice grains that grow closer to home because at the end of the day ,the harvest festival must start the year by making a difference to the farmer. Make an effort to celebrate the harvest festival with the gratitude it deserves.To acknowledge that ‘the farmer is king’ is not something that you will ever regret ! Happiness and prosperity to all…Pongalo pongal !